An Interview with Jonathan Lethem

Oscar Scholin

I was sitting under an oak tree, streaking shadows on the beige façade. Red terracotta poked the blue sky, which opened onto a lawn criss-crossed with concrete and dotted with trees like neurons. I was in a state rather like a dream, suspended between moments, as an AI ingested, transcoded, and transcribed a conversation I just had with renown author and Pomona Professor Jonathan Lethem, a critically acclaimed American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. He has published 13 novels, including Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, numerous short stories and essays, and most recently, a book of poetry. ChatGPT described him as a “like a chameleon, able to blend into different literary styles and genres, often featuring elements of science fiction, noir, and magical realism … and to bring fresh insights to familiar subjects.”

I had Lethem as a professor for the class “Impossible Novels” Fall of 2021, in which we read and discussed a range of strange works from Kafka’s The Castle to Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. Since last summer when I first began working with neural networks as part of an astrophysics research project, I have felt much like K. gazing up at this veiled wondrous illusion — what is this Castle of code and dreams? So began an obsession to learn and construct my own AI models. As I worked, I realized I could not extricate my questions about the nature of the work from the work itself. To make partial sense of this mental labyrinth I have immersed myself in (and many of us have perhaps experienced to some degree), I wanted to have a conversation with the “chameleon” who guided my first reading of Kafka and, as an author thinking about many related questions, offers a unique vantage of this Castle. Look here, Lethem seems to say, at this reflection in a puddle of moonlight.

Northwest Review (NWR)
I’m really glad to be here talking with you today. Last semester, I took a class with Pomona Professor Jordan Kirk called Medieval Proof. As part of this class, he wanted us to conduct what he calls a “readerly experiment,” a way to engage with the texts we had been reading in an active, exploratory, experimental way. I was curious if I could build a custom neural network to generate literature.

That was a big question for me, because there’s been a lot of attention to these networks that can generate images. Of course, Chat GPT has been all over the news lately. But it seems to me that many of the discussions on these networks seem to be centered on what it means if students can have their essays written for them, how copyright is affected, and plagiarism.

So I’m curious what you see, both as a professor and an author, as the potential impact of these sorts of generative AI networks. More broadly, I’m interested in the effect on art, and in particular literature: both on a practical level and an ontological level if it changes how we think about literature and what it means?*

Jonathan Lethem (JL)
That’s an enormous question. I feel like I’ve been thinking about this practically forever, because of the extent of my early reading and engagement with science fiction (SF). Now, it’s a commonplace that SF wasn’t meant to be predictive, and it’s a banal error to assess it in terms of how much it anticipates real futures or real developments in technologies – instead the real emphasis, is on its capacity to express present states, present collective realities, present technological experiences and political experiences.

But thinking coherently about the present is a form of prediction, too! As a laboratory for cautionary anticipations of certain developments — SF did an incredibly good job of making me feel like I already had encountered certain things before they came along.

It’s happened to me many times. From Philip K. Dick’s “news-clown,” which suggested the news might develop into a form impossible to differentiate from aggressive satire, to the endless rumination on the subjects of computers and robots. Even the very simple stories that Asimov was writing in I, Robot offered a number of philosophical anticipations for literal experiences that weren’t going to be available for a hundred years, or more.

Yet when these things drop into the present, even in some primitive form — or sometimes not so primitive — it seems the actuality is always textured in such a way that it’s still totally disconcerting. And often impossible to accept and cogently think about. But again, it’s also often the case that when something is announced as “just having arrived,” you look around and realize that in some way it was already here. Or then again sometimes things are announced and claimed to exist and you think: No, actually it’s not really here yet.

So in this case I experience some kind of weird combination of: I already thought about that/I haven’t yet begun thinking about that. It’s commonplace and it’s been mistaken for an innovation, and it’s never really gonna be here. All of those feelings nest together when it comes to the AI chatbots.

I’ve glanced at some of those texts. I’ve been presented with the idea, meant to provide maximum anxiety for teachers in the possibility I could be fooled. I mean, let’s take it as a given that I’ve already been fooled — and for that matter, I was fooled before the AI was available, by “fake papers.” But I actually think that the actual domain of literature is a little less changed by this, or changeable, than people seem to be ready to declare, whether in a typical paranoid, dispossessed kind of way, or in the ecstatic technophilic embrace of the idea that we’ll now be able to outsource all our creativity. I tend to think: Isn’t it basically just recombinant existing material?

It’s a lot of recombinant existing stuff. And, therefore, good for fooling you. But also good for educating you about just how much language is floating out there, and reminding you of the degree of either conscious or subconscious resemblance among existing writings.

It’s now a while ago, the period where I was really focused on appropriation in art – my Ecstasy of Influence essay is almost twenty years old. I was thinking then about sampling and music and collage or digital reproduction in visual art and film. One of my feelings was that current kinds of digital applications were only making literal and vivid and creating a sense of urgency around the fact that art is appropriative in its fundamental actions, and always had been.

Some things provide a visible leading edge, like a rap song in which you hear embedded a giant chunk of some old funk song and you’re like: I don’t know if that’s really a new song, it sounds just like, say, Earth, Wind and Fire. Or an Andy Warhol painting that’s someone else’s photograph. But then these are just the leading edge of a tendency. Borrowing is so much more at the root of making any new image or piece of language than many people realize.

In The Ecstasy of Influence, I set out to provoke those anxieties and complicate them at the same time. There’s a magic trick at the end where I reveal that all the language in it comes from other people’s voices. I haven’t read it in a while, but I think I’m still pretty pleased with that result. And it generated a lot of excitement and attention at the time. It’s been taught frequently, especially in art schools.

I suspect that essay would still represent the kinds of thoughts and feelings I’m having when I see these nicely smoothed-out, rendered pieces of digital art that computers now belch out on command, and these seductively polished pieces of essays or potentially fictions. These results are being created by computers that are basically just superhuman appropriation machines.

In doing so, they’re working as tiny, little busy-beaver machines that nibble at the edges of a gigantic ocean of human utterances. They’re taking human sentences and reworking them and stitching them together and smoothing them out and they’re really great at that.

But they’re still just basically a kind of a mechanical flea on King Kong. And that King Kong is that we exist, that we built the appropriation machines and all the sentences too, and that they remain at our beck and call — even though we may be astonished by the results, we’re being astonished by ourselves. They require our instructions. You know, “I want to see a photograph of a horse eating a piece of cake with a fork,” whatever it might be.

It’s a giant mirror pointing back to us. The AI are just making visible what we already do, what we like, what we tend to think about. They’re doing exactly what we want our machines to do, which is to fool us, to cause us to think they’re magic. Which, not incidentally, is also one of the things we often want our art to do.

The production of sentences, and stories, relies upon a vast information bank of earlier such things. This doesn’t seem to have changed in its essence, just because it is now a machine doing the relying. I’m thinking here about the process of writing fiction. The truth is that if someone isn’t a reader, and I mean a voracious reader — which is to say they really love it and go through a decade at least of a kind of compulsive ingestion of different kinds of stories — they don’t really develop a brain which can produce stories. They don’t possess access to enough versions and models of how narrative fiction functions, the many ways storytellers solve those kinds of problems with sentences. In other words, you have to turn your brain into one of those computers, if you want to make a narrative yourself. So the Chat AI, even though in one sense it’s real, also strikes me as being an allegorical object. Thinking about it is a way of becoming fascinated with our own brains and how they operate.

I moved from the visual arts to writing stories. And I’m 58; I grew up when the heroic image of modernism was still really, really powerful. Even if it had been succeeded by what we now call postmodernism, it didn’t yet have that name. I was sometimes confused about the presence of subject matter in my chosen art form, because I’d inherited this conception of abstract art as the highest form of creativity — an art purged of all reference.

It made me interested in literary modernist extremes, like the language experiments of Gertrude Stein, as well as others who tried to abstract language into a pure form. Yet I realized pretty soon that what I was drawn to was a much more prosaic thing. If abstraction was exalted, then I was a fallen person, because I really wanted my stories to be operating in a partnership with reference, mixing my ideas and images with recognizable ideas and images in the minds of other persons. Even in this realization — that the language arts, for me, couldn’t be abstracted — I still held a certain anxiety, and as a result I restricted or tried to restrict certain kinds of ideas from being too prominent in my writing.

Now, I’m actually not such a deep thinker or so philosophically adept — I’m certainly not trained in philosophical thinking, as much as I may be attracted to it. I don’t think I’m really in any danger of writing anything that someone would call the “novel of ideas.” Yet I seemed for a while to be fearful I might commit what could be called proletarian fiction, or write novels that urgently espouse a kind of political point of view, or be too full of sociological content, as though these might be less “artistic” than than ones that are somehow purely concerned with consciousness or language or human experience in a kind of purified, non-sociological sense.

Well, I gradually came to feel that that viewpoint was ludicrous for a lot of reasons. But one was I actually realized that in my own work, it was certain sentences that interested me most were the ones that were trying to do the hard work of thinking about something I found difficult to express — rather than being only decorative or descriptive or funny. It was the ones that struggled to make something esoteric — I mean, to myself — more clear, these were the sentences that struck me as being ones that actually came out the strangest and the most remarkable or unusual.

I’m avoiding the word “original” because that cuts against my whole other rhetoric that maybe fewer things are original than we like to think. But the sentences that interested me most as sentences were in the service of trying to describe some idea that was either uncomfortable or conceptually bizarre. An attempt to capture some relation to the world that I felt only I knew about. And that included sociological descriptions of how exactly I came into the human world in Brooklyn in the 1970s under certain conditions — which were, in fact, ideological situations. And I thought, well, if it’s those pressures that are making the sentences that are the really amazing ones, then it can’t be that excluding content or subject matter or sociology is a good way to get to amazing sentences. Because it came to seem to me actually, almost always the opposite.

And so, to apply this thinking to the Chat AI, I’d say that the one thing we can’t ask the computer to do is try to explain something to us that only it knows or feels. In that sense the Chat AI is structurally excluded from a whole part of the project.

Thank you for reading this excerpt from our interview with Jonathan Lethem. Continue reading in the Winter 2023 Northwest Review.

Winter 2023

Jonathan Letham is the author of twelve novels. His thirteenth, Brooklyn Crime Novel, will be published in October. He teaches Creative Writing at Pomona College

Oscar Scholin is a poet and physics-mathematics student currently enrolled at Pomona College. His work has previously appeared in Northwest Review.